Dan The Man
Reality always strikes me when my friend Phyllis, opeans her Westhampton beach house for the summer. It is then that once again seeing the beauty of the beaches and seascapes impacts me. Real life experiences like that are not easily forgotten, some stay with you forever, so it was with Dan the Man and I. Daniel (a.k.a.The Man) Shanman, was the Dean of Boy’s at Erasmus Hall High School back in the sixties; at the time I was what you might describe today as a lost boy. Erasmus Hall High School is the same today as it was when I went there over a half century ago and what really let’s you know that your in high school is the guardian of this pedagogic universe. Right behind the archway as you enter, larger than life itself, and more challenging than a Phi Beta Kappa IQ, is the monumental statue of Erasmus himself, the renowned Dutch scholar and theologian of the Renaissance, the impression that hit me was one of dark foreboding, and I cast around for what it was I was going to do. Students would throw pennies at the statue trying to get them into the book Erasmus was reading. If the pennies landed in the book it would bring the student good luck and assure a passing grade. Unfortunately, my grades remained poor. Finally, I was called to the office of Mrs. Bronstein, the student guidance counselor. She could be best described as being firm but fair, and told me I was to report to Dean Shanman’s office the next day…without fail.
Dan (The Man) Shanman, was well known on campus. Not a member of the formal teaching staff; he was more of an administrative enforcer. His program was the last stop for every hard case misfit in the school. Those that made it through graduated, those that don’t went out! He wasn’t called ` The Man` for nothing. He was all muscle, no fat, with square Romanesque features and piercing blue eyes. He had a way of looking you and affecting a quizzical grin that exposed a set of even white teeth when he knew you were lying to him. He was sitting at his desk questioning two tough guys I knew from the football team who were part of his special group of students. They had been caught rough housing and drinking beer in the swimming pool locker room. When I entered the room he told me to take a seat on the couch across from the boys who were sitting in two chairs directly facing his desk. Dan the Man had their six beer cans lined up along the left side of his desk as he spoke in a low monotone voice. The office was pretty big; the couch was about fifteen feet from Shanman’s desk. It was positioned flush up against the right side wall which contained a large picture window that provided a panoramic view of the campus below and the monumental statue of Erasmus as well. Directly to my right, between the couch where I was sitting, and the picture window encasement sat a small waste paper basket about eighteen inches high and a foot in diameter. As the Dean questioned the boys, to get them to understand the seriousness of their actions and his disappointment in them, he would take an empty beer can from the desk with his left hand, crush it, then flip the crushed can to his right hand, and nonchalantly fire it across the room where it ricocheted off the surface of the wall and landed straight in the waste paper basket next to the couch I was sitting on. Amazingly, it was all done in one swift continuous motion; and it was a mesmerizing, mind- bending attention getter. Fascinated, I sat there, fused to the couch, transfixed by a rigidity that seized every muscle in my body as each can exploded in his hand with a loud pop, rocketed across the room and slammed off the wall next to me, landing unerringly in the waste basket The two boys who had been denying everything, gradually began to fall apart like cheap suits during an aggressive Rumba competition. Their complete collapse came on the fourth can, this one wasn’t empty, it was full; rather then just popping, it exploded like a geyser, and as it went sailing across the room unerringly into the waste paper basket twenty feet away, a stream of bubbling beer foam trailed behind it like the exhaust from a rocket. The boy’s admitted everything as they banged into and stumbled over each other trying to go out through his office door. Now the room fell deadly silent as `Dan the Man` turned around and fixed his steely blue eyes on me. Slowly that enigmatic grin he was famous for spread across his face.
“Bucky, that’s what they call you, right?” Yes sir,” I said. “Bucky, do you know what the real meaning of the opened book that Erasmus is holding in his hands is?” I didn’t so I kept my mouth shut.
“For your information ‘Bucky,’ the iconography- which means the subject matter of the statue, is that reading is the key to knowledge, and knowledge is the key to freedom from tyranny. For some reason or another over the last few semesters it seems that Erasmus’s message has not gotten through to you. Rather than concentrating on the intellectual enhancement this institution offers students your age, you seem to have focused your efforts on becoming a champion penny pitcher, which I might add is a vocation deader than that of being a wick winder in a candle factory. Now that you understand this…I want to ask you just one question. Do you want to learn something and graduate from here, or do you want to continue your desperate search for social acceptance by pitching pennies for the rest of your life? Don’t be afraid, it’s just you and I, student and teacher. Tell me the truth, a short answer, if you had some help, do you want to stay here and learn something . . . yes or no will do. If your answer is yes, you will begin starting tomorrow by reporting to this office one hour before classes each day and be prepared to stay one hour after classes as well.” “Yes!” “Ok, that’s all I need to know, we start tomorrow, you got a lot of wasted time to make up for.” Later in life I came to realize that he had a gift few people possess. He had the ability to empower, influence, and motivate people. I can still hear his mantra, “Pay the price, don’t quit, stay on the ball, I’m going all the way with you because I know you can do this.” After graduation I went to say good by, he asked me what my plans were. “The Marine Corps,” I replied. Four years later after being sent back to New York for separation at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, I went to pay Dan the Man a visit at Erasmus Hall, he was not there. A `Wally Cox` type guy named Bemis was. When I asked him where I could find Mr. Shanman, he stared at me strangely and said, “Did you serve with him?”
“No, I was a student in his group when I attended school here.” “Please follow me” he said, and proceeded to take me across the hall to a small gallery. Inside was a row of ten by twelve inch ornate frames with glass covers that contained glossy head shots. Above them there was a shinny brass inlay with the words “IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO SERVED.” The inscription below Dan’s photograph was painfully simple. “Daniel Isaac Shanman, Major in the United States Army, killed on active duty in Viet Nam, June 16, 1970. His service and commitment to his country was matched only by his dedication to the students of Erasmus Hall High School.” Once outside I stopped to catch my breath and noticed a group of boys laughing and joking around the statue while pitching pennies. Long haired, sharp eyed, curious faces gathered around me and began firing questions. “How come you guys aren’t in class I said?” “We’re cutting class because we are going to the game this afternoon.” The memories now flooded back as I looked up at the picture window in Dan the Man’s old office and saw Bemis’s slight silhouette framed within; arms folded, he was peering down at them like some metaphysical shade on the periphery of reality, I wondered if Bemis knew their names . . . . Dan the Man would know them all . . . but he’s gone now.